Wartburg is going through it

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Wartburg’s bench erupts as the Knights knock off Bates in the Sweet 16.
Photo by Steve LaBonte, d3photography.com

By Riley Zayas

“I’ve said this before, too. You don’t get experience without going through it.”

Wartburg head coach Bob Amsberry shares this thought as his team makes the 641-mile trek from northeast Iowa to Columbus, Ohio and the Final Four two days before tip-off. He is, of course, spot-on, as he answers a question regarding the poise of his seven seniors in particular.

The start of Wartburg’s run to the 2024 Final Four — the Knights’ third in program history — began two years ago in the 2022 tournament when Millikin sent them home in an 81-68 first round loss. Experience is built through those situations, the outcome varying at times, but the progress in a continuous climb.

“It was our sophomores’ first time in the NCAA Tournament,” Amsberry notes, mentioning the 2022 tournament loss to Millikin. “It was at Eau Claire playing against Elyce Knudsen, who is a stud of a player. They beat us, but that is an experience we’ve drawn on since then [game].”

It was the beginning of a dream, the first step in Wartburg making a return trip to the Final Four. In many ways, the experience gave the Knights a taste of the national tournament, and a better understanding, perhaps from a players’ perspective, on what it would take to win on that stage.

“Having that experience from multiple years under our belts, I would say it helps us not to get stressed,” Jaedon Murphy, who had 23 points in Wartburg’s quarterfinal win on Saturday, said. “It helps us stay focused. One of the things our coaches say after games like that is, ‘You guys just looked so calm and collected despite the situation.’ That experience makes it feel more natural in a way because we’ve been in these situations before.”

That “calm and collected” approach revealed itself more than once in Wartburg’s road to Columbus. Two of the Knights’ four tournament contests were decided by three points or less, including a dramatic 54-53 win in the third round over Bates that saw fifth-year senior Macy Harris score the game-winner with less than a second on the clock. . And that came after Bates led, 40-34, entering the fourth quarter. Wartburg put up 20 points in the final 10 minutes alone, securing the comeback and a trip to the quarterfinals, where Amsberry’s squad upended red-hot Washington & Lee, 68-58.

“That game was intense,” Murphy said, looking back on the victory over Bates. “Seeing Macy make that move to finish that layup at the buzzer was so exciting. And it’s fun to travel somewhere different, and be with the team.”

Last week it was Providence, Rhode Island. This week, it is Columbus. The journey has been significant for the Knights, but the concerns about struggling away from home are non-existent. Wartburg proved that with its neutral court wins on the east coast a week ago, but even more notably, are 16-1 in games played away from their home court in Waverly.

Adaptability is certainly one of this squad’s strengths.

“I think our flexibility to play in different ways is also a huge advantage,” Amsberry said. “Like, we love to get out and run. [Against] some teams, like Illinois Wesleyan, we really wanted to control the tempo. And I thought we did that. We have the ability to play different styles when we need to and our players are willing to adjust depending on what’s needed on what night against what opponent.”

A portion of that goes back to Wartburg’s consistent approach of learning from its past experiences. In different ways, last year’s second round win at Hope and the third round loss to eventual national runner-up Christopher Newport, set the Knights up for the 2024 run.

“There’s definitely a connection with the Christopher Newport loss and then us coming out and beating a really, really good Illinois Wesleyan team,” Amsberry noted. “I thought we handled it [CNU’s] press really well, and were able to break that pretty consistently. But then when we got in the half court, some of the open threes we like to shoot, we got rushed in that. So in our preparation for Illinois Wesleyan, also a pressing team. We talked about how we got sped up in the Christopher Newport game and we can’t allow that to happen against Illinois Wesleyan.”

I swear it didn’t. Wartburg came away with a 62-59 win over the Titans, returning to the third round for the second straight season in memorable fashion. Last season’s second round win will not be one forgotten in the Wartburg program, as it came at Hope, 81-67. The defending national champions fell on their home court as Wartburg’s confidence soared.

“We convinced ourselves that [the run] wasn’t over and prepared ourselves to beat a great Hope team,” Amsberry said at a news conference on Monday. “That game was really important for the run we’ve had this year. It gave us confidence that we could go on the road and beat big-time teams.”

So at the beginning of this season, weeks before the ball even tipped off in the Knights’ season opener against North Park, Wartburg set a goal: Win it all.

It comes from a standpoint of setting no limits, and Wartburg has not shied away from the big-picture goals. With the upperclassmen on the roster, the Knights knew this season could be special, and it has been. But reaching Columbus wasn’t the objective.

“I think it’s really important, and we’ve talked about this as we’ve gotten into the postseason. … We don’t want to set a limit,” Amsberry said. “I had a team several years ago that went to the Final Four in 2016. And then the majority of that team went to the Final Four again in 2018.

“I had a player that at one point said, ‘I just want to make it back to the Final Four.’ It kind of hit me in the gut when that was said and I thought, ‘I don’t want to have that limit.’ That’s another experience that I’ve drawn on as a coach. We’re not going to set a ceiling on this thing. It’s not enough to just get one more.”

That is the approach the Knights have taken, pairing the macro-level goal of winning the national title with a micro-level desire to walk to the steps needed to get there each day. Wartburg is 29-2, with its last loss coming 19 games ago to WashU, on Dec. 30. The Knights have not wavered, and navigated through ARC play with an unblemished 16-0 record.

“Basketball is such a long season,” Murphy said. “So taking it day-by-day and game-by-game is so important. We start in October, so if you’re looking to March, that’s a long way away, and there’s a lot to get done in between.”

Throughout that time, and into the NCAA Tournament, a recurring storyline for Wartburg has been its balance and cohesiveness. Six players average at least 6.5 points per game, and defensively, the Knights force 17.2 turnovers per game, the result of a unified defensive effort that puts plenty of pressure on the opponent from all sides. Their 15.2 assists per game is also a strong number. As senior guard Britney Young said at a press conference earlier in the week, this is a team that is “built on selflessness.”

“The great thing about us is we’re not one-dimensional,” Murphy noted. “Like Britney mentioned, we have so many girls who can step up. I think that’s what makes it fun at the same time. We trust each other, and that’s been a big thing this year. We’ve seen the importance of the trust that we’ve built over the years.”

With that trust in place, Wartburg heads to a setting that is familiar for Amsberry — his first Final Four team at Wartburg played its national semifinal in Columbus in 2016 — but is new for his players. Their pursuit is clear and regardless of how it unfolds, the focus is on walking away from this 2024 season with no regrets.

“We want the whole thing,” Amsberry said. “I think if you don’t dream big and plan to do that, it never happens. A lot of people dream big like that, and it doesn’t happen. And that’s okay. You set that goal and go for it, and at the end, whether you get it or not, you have to be satisfied with what you put in.

“That’s been a message for us. We’re going to do everything in our power to give ourselves the best chance to win. If we’re playing on Saturday or we’re not, we’re going to be able to look back and feel good that we’ve done everything we needed to do to give us a shot to do this thing.

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